Books Matter

New titles like The Art of Fielding, We the Animals and Save the Last Dance for Satan showcase that the publishing industry, like the rest of America, might be on the upswing

You can expect the President to cite a number of professions hard hit by the economy when making the case for his jobs plan tonight.

Teachers? We’ve dropped the ball on education. Let’s put teachers to work.

Construction workers? We’ve lost pride in our infrastructure. Let’s put our crews back to work.

Book publishers? Book publishers? What’s that doing on my teleprompter?

The book industry is too small, too elite, too New York, and of too little economic consequence to the world at large to be referenced in a presidential speech designed to show economic daylight to millions.

Pity that publishing is too small for the world stage, because what’s happened to the book business is an allegory worthy of sociological consideration when assessing what’s happened to us all.

Seduced by the big and synthetically bulked up shoulders of the book chain stores, publishers simply fed the monster, kicking out endless streams of fast food reads—vampire soap operas, chick-a-lits, tomes by Meyer and Grisham (and their lessers), terrorist potboilers, booze drenched memoirs, jingoistic prose packaged as motivational wisdom and theories on the best ways to make and protect your money—all simply messaged and on display for the mall wandering public.

Hooked on junk, blinded by the easy high, the publishers and the chain stores never saw it coming; never saw that there’d be a misguided war, that the financial bottom would drop, that consumers would begin to hold their cash tight, and then really tight, and then so tight that the notion of spending 27 or so smacks for a hardcover book with the literary value of a Waffle House placemat would finally hit them as perverse.

The publishers also didn’t see, not soon enough anyway, that there’d be a Kindle and an iPad and a Nook and a Michele Bachmann and an earthquake on the east coast, and that things would never quite be what they were.

Consequently, book publishing, like so many once going concerns, is adrift, in a canoe without a paddle. Anything could happen, but here’s the good part: there are indications that what comes next might just be the very best thing. Little to lose, why not go with literary excellence?

This very week, for example, three books debuted, books with style and substance, and in the case of the two works of fiction, debut novels both, real literary gold. Alone they could return honor and respect to the battered book-publishing world.

There’s The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, a baseball book in the same way Malamud’s The Natural, and Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, and Mark Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly is a baseball book. Baseball is the device that pulls us through—in Harbach’s story, life changes for many because of a single error. “[There are] intimations of the delicate balance between individual will and destiny that play out on the field…“ suggested the NYT in a recent glowing review.

Then there’s We The Animals, Justin Torres’ sparse novel, a thinly disguised memoir, narrated by the youngest of three sons born to a Puerto Rican father and white mother from Brooklyn who now live in upstate New York. It is a book filled with vicious and ferocious vignettes that take place inside the home, telling moments all, yet miniature in scope and devoid of simple judgments. The family breaks and heals again and again, but the writing is so fine, and the point of view so fresh, that we’re willing to live through the cycle with our narrator again and again.

Finally, Save the Last Dance for Satan, by Nick Tosches, is a tough and highly focused look at the pioneering days of rock and roll when individual gangsters and hustlers ran the show. These endangered stories make for far more stimulating reading than anything we could read about the corporate gangsters and hustlers that run the music biz today.

Three great reads, none predictable, none pigeonholed by genre, all available in the few chain bookstores that still exist. All three offer hope to an industry looking to rewrite its sins of the past.

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]) is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.